Bunnie Huang -- best known for hacking the Xbox -- has been in China lately, sourcing manufacturing suppliers for Chumby, the new soft computer appliance his startup is selling (Chumby is way cool, by the way -- totally open, hackable, and a complete reimagining of how a computer can be used in your home).
I saw Bunnie give a presentation on the conditions and techniques in Chinese factories last month and I was completely blown away. The manufacturing sector in China is so surreal, so huge, so efficient and so weird that it's nearly impossible to get your head around it.
Bunnie has started blogging his China thoughts in detail, with a series of great posts:
Skill: Factory work in China isn't unskilled labor -- anything but. Watching the expert sewing in one of Bunnie's videos is like going to a close-up magic show, an astounding and effortless-seeming exhibition of manual dexterity. Contrast that with the skill of the people -- some children -- making rubberized tags, by hand, their arms branded with character logos burned in by accidental brushes with hot molds. And then there's the guy who can get rid of a $2 component by substituting $0.16 worth of parts and $0.05 worth of labor, paying someone to join together tiny sub-components all day.
Dedication: When it's production crunch time, Chinese factories run to a romantic idealism that's part Bushido, part IBM Song Book. Bunnie describes the final stages of the manufacturing setup for Chumby, and the intense personal dedication the factory workers showed -- and recounts an amazing story of a talented senior engineer who didn't know what Chumby was for because she didn't know what the Internet is.
Feeding the Factory: Like Google and other high-tech employers, Chinese factory-cities attract the best workers by offering food. Factory cafeterias aren't the same as the Googleplex's gourmet chef. Chinese factories run a little like factory farms, isolating new members of the cohort to prevent the spread of disease: guests eat off disposable plates and cutlery to stop them passing germs on to the factory's live-in, eat-in workers, who are subjected to intense medical scrutiny to prevent factory disease outbreaks.
Scale: The size of the factories, iPod City's own factory off-ramp, the enormous cohort of women workers in Shenzen -- China's manufacturing is at a scale that beggars the imagination.
Xbox hacker's view of manufacturing in China
Audio from Xbox hacker's USC talk last night
Chumby chairman interview: squeezable, open bean-bag computer
Andrew "Bunnie" Huang's tutorial on Hardware Hacking